By JODY SPARK
COLUMN — As a gardener who has an interest in food security, I have been an observer and sometimes writer on the organic vs. GMO movement and notice the conflict has often been likened to the battle of David and Goliath.
In the scriptural account, David resists wearing the king’s oversized armour and selects five smooth stones. Some say the extra ammunition was prudent preparation, others speculate Goliath had four brothers. We do know Goliath had at least one brother, and maybe there was indeed a stone for each brother.
Like Goliath, there are brothers in the pro-GMO movement, and they too are giants. And after hearing the comparisons of GMOs to a David versus Goliath conflict, this comparison may be even more appropriate than we know.
How can these little special-interest groups possibly take on Big Agri-tech and wound the proliferation of GMOs?
By hitting in the right place. And in this case, the stone is awareness, and the right place is to the people. Information and awareness to the people. No need for armour, just a stone and the right shot.
The strategy is to make people aware of a few vital points: Most don’t know they consume GMOs and how much they consume. People are unaware that GMOs limit genetic diversity, that there are no long-term studies proving their safety for human health, and GMOs can cripple farmers from providing for their communities in a sustainable manner.
That is why a number of special-interest groups are picking up their stones, usually focusing on one of these areas.
One such group is the Open Source Seed Initiative, or OSSI, which released a number of free-use seeds this spring. These seeds have been selected for their nutrition and drought tolerance, among other traits, and come with a promise not to limit the use of the seeds and ask the purchaser to promise likewise.
The initiative was co-ordinated by Jack Kloppenburg, Claire Luby, and Irwin Goldman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and includes scientists, citizens, plant breeders, farmers, seed companies and gardeners who believe there should not be restrictions on the open exchange of germ plasm.
Some groups have been pushing for labelling on consumer products, and this is one effective method to raise awareness. The OSSI, on the other hand, is taking the same approach as the open-source software movement. It hopes to discourage monopolies on genetic plant resources.
The thing is, there are no patented GMO versions of the types of vegetables the OSSI offers (yet) and it would seem there is nothing preventing us from saving and reusing the kale, peppers or squash seeds we grow. And there are plenty of companies that already produce open-pollinated vegetable seeds that can be grown and saved.
But Goldman, professor and chairman of the University of Wisconsin’s horticulture department, told me the difference is legality.
“OSSI is a ‘protected commons’ whereas those other seeds may be considered a ‘regular commons,’ ” he said.
“That is, there is nothing prohibiting someone from selecting out of an open pollinated cultivar and then licensing / patenting the outcome. The OSSI varieties and their derivatives are restricted from being legally tied up.”
The aim is to ensure the world has free access to seeds to breed and reuse as they choose.
Still, this doesn’t seem to threaten Big Agri-tech. Hence the polished PR from Monsanto:
“We believe that everyone growing vegetables – from home gardeners to farmers large and small, organic, conventional or using genetically modified seeds – have a choice when it comes to their seed purchase,” Monsanto spokeswoman Carly Scaduto was quoted in an emailed statement.
So, yes, labelling is crucial so consumers can protest with their pocketbook. The OSSI is taking another approach, which may be described as pre-emptive and clever. Gimmick, maybe, but it accomplishes what it set out to do: It sends the message that no one should own life. It should be freely shared.
In the end, it wasn’t the stone that killed Goliath. When Goliath was down, David used Goliath’s own sword to kill him. Initiatives such as labelling and open exchange of seeds won’t kill GMOs. In the process of defending their patents, agri-tech companies have ruthlessly lived by the sword. But you know what happens to those who live by the sword.
When the sword will be taken from its sheath, I don’t know. Thankfully, in the meantime, there are many stones for us to choose from. Pick up yours. Plant a garden using open pollinated seeds or, even better, buy free-use seeds like OSSI’s and eat from your garden like your life and future depend on it.
Because one day, it just may.
Dan and Jody Spark are in their fourth year of living their back-to-the-land dream on their small acreage at McLure and they are having the time of their life.